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Paul Welsh reflects on Peter Cushing, whose career took him from Laurel and Hardy to Hammer Horror
I have just noticed it is now 20 years since the death of talented actor and true gentleman Peter Cushing.
Amazingly, it is now 41 years since I travelled down to interview him on the set of The Beast Must Die, but I still remember it.
We sat in the old house at Shepperton Studios and chatted for about an hour. I found him to be a very kind but rather sad man. Just two years earlier, his beloved wife Helen had died and they were so close that he said: “Three quarters of me went with Helen and now I just long to join her.”
Peter was quite religious and commented: “I know she is only one step away waiting for me and I hope I can bury myself in work until then so I will take anything offered to me.”
His agent kept his fee very reasonable to ensure the parts came in, despite the 1970s being a bad time for the film business and the old Hammer movies going out of fashion.
During the interview, Peter chain smoked but wore a white glove to ensure his fingers would not become nicotine stained, as that might upset viewers in close-up scenes. I also recall the scent of lavender, which was his favourite soap.
We chatted about his visit to Hollywood as an unknown actor in the 1930s and how he ended up starring in a film with Carole Lombard, living as a house guest with Ida Lupino and even appearing on screen with Laurel and Hardy.
Of course, Peter is best remembered for his Hammer horror films between the late 1950s and early 1970s, although he had been one of the BBC’s first television stars in the mid-1950s.
I asked if type casting was a source of annoyance, to which he replied: “Never, dear boy. It is a compliment when the public want to see you in certain genres of pictures and to have steady employment in an industry full of talented but unemployed fellow actors is quite something. I also dislike the word horror as I see those films as fantasy.”
I next saw Peter on the set of Star Wars at Elstree. He told me his uniform reminded him of being an Edwardian chauffeur and the boots were not comfortable. His answer was to ask George Lucas to shoot him from the waist up whenever possible, so he could wear his carpet slippers instead in certain scenes. He thought George had cast him after seeing a portrait shot of him at the studio and was reminded of his villainous screen roles.
Peter was a true gentleman and so polite. Everybody from the crews to fellow actors loved working with him. He was always word perfect, came up with ideas and loved using hand
props, which many actors loathe when making movies.
Sadly, Peter suffered from cancer in his latter years and in 1994 he was at last reunited with his beloved Helen.
His hometown of Whitstable ground to a halt for his funeral cortege and, at his request, he was interred in an unmarked grave with Helen so it would not become a tourist attraction.
I had the pleasure of attending his memorial service in London, sitting next to Donald Sinden and Joanna Lumley.
I then invited Christopher Lee to unveil a plaque at Elstree Studios in his honour in 1996 and that is now sited in Shenley Road.
I treasure the last letter I got from Peter just before his death, when we were fighting to save Elstree Studios.
He wrote: “I am only held together by sticky tape and Blu Tack, but if you want me to join you in front of the bulldozers, I will be there.”
I am glad you found eternal happiness Peter, and it was an honour to have known you.